David Wain’s “They Came Together” identifies the tropes of the romantic comedy with uncommon acuity. If only it would stop winking so much.
Wain has made his film with an enviable collection of funny people. It stars Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler as the intractably drawn together couple, and Wain wrote it with “Wet Hot American Summer” co-writer and fellow “The State” alum Michael Showalter. Nearly everyone in the movie, even in small roles filled by Ed Helms to Bill Hader, is a comic talent.
Most if not all of the filmmakers and cast have themselves trafficked in that so-loved, so-loathed genre — including Wain’s last movie, “Wanderlust.” “They Came Together” thus feels like a parody party, thrown by those who know rom-coms from the inside out.
But in spoofing romantic comedies, Wain has made a film that can be both hailed and derided for its nonstop cleverness. “They Came Together” is an excellent sketch. It is a less successful movie.
The film is framed by the couple — Joel (Rudd) and Molly (Poehler) — explaining to friends (Hader, Ellie Kemper) over dinner how they met. The cliches come fast and furious, beginning with their repeated instance that New York — a city that should feel ashamed of itself for how many cheesy romances it has fostered — is really, truly its own character in their story.
At repeating this fake witticism, Poehler mugs for the camera, looking directly into it, the overriding posture of Wain’s self-aware satire.
Molly and Joel are opposites on laughably extreme ends of commerce. Evoking Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, she has a little candy store (Upper Sweet Side) so unconcerned with profit that it doesn’t even charge customers. He’s working for the giant corporate monolith Candy Systems & Research.
The two are nevertheless attracted to each other by their common interests (“You like fiction books, too? No way!”) and soon are going through the genre’s motions of running to bed with a trail of clothes (only to be found making out fully attired), meeting the parents (hers are white supremacists) and having the predictable fight. In the line of the movie, the relationship is over-dramatically declared “like rain-proofing on a wooden deck: Finished!”
All of this is naturally quite funny, and — especially amid summer blockbusters — the low-budget slapstick of “They Came Together” is a cool breeze. Some of Wain’s best touches are in the filmmaking: subtitles that are sneezed away, blatantly cliched apartment decor, a ridiculous zoom in on Rudd’s face.
But when Wain and Showalter satirized summer camp movies in “Wet Hot American Summer,” they did it with fuller character-based comedy. Wain, Showalter and Michael Ian Black (who plays a co-worker obviously sleeping with Joel’s pre-Molly girlfriend) have a long and reliably hysterical history of taking simple premises to extremes of absurdity. The best scene in “Wanderlust,” for example, basically halted the story for a lengthy scene of Rudd psyching himself up for sex in front of a mirror.
But without a baseline for the comedy, the layers of spoof in “They Came Together” don’t have the foundation to carry even a short movie. (The film is just 83 minutes.) When one of the few primarily dramatic actors in “They Came Together” — Michael Shannon, type-cast to the max as a madman let out of jail — makes a fiery cameo, the movie gets a jolt.
“They Came Together” could learn from him: No matter the movie, the always committed Shannon would never dare wink at an audience.